This dive into my favorite fantasy picks of the season precedes any of my 2018-19 NHL fantasy drafts. Specifying which players you find most enticing before the draft is a bit like entering a poker game with your cards stapled to your forehead, but so be it.
Here are 10 players I'm targeting to join every witty pun-named team I construct this season. (I feel after his retirement, I must also retire the Patrik Elias Sports Bureau, my fantasy team name of preference over the years.) Some of them are obvious, some of them less so. But all have a lot going for them entering this season, at least in theory.
Let's start with a young forward who was just gifted a rather notably new centerman:
John Tavares is going to be one of the first players off the board in your draft. Heck, he might go first overall if the Maple Leafs-blue Kool-Aid one of your league members has been marinating in for the past few months blinds him or her to Connor McDavid. The expectation that Tavares, who is already an established point-per-game player, will reach new heights is understandable, but he won't do it alone. Enter Marner. The 21-year-old had a nice 69-point campaign in 82 games last season, but should eclipse his 22-goal career high quite handily with Tavares on his line. As Kyle Okposo, Matt Moulson, Josh Bailey and Anders Lee can testify, wingers have a funny way of filling the net in the presence of JT.
At first glance, Giroux would seem to be ripe for regression. His 34 goals and 102 points were career highs. So are they repeatable? I think so, provided Sean Couturier remains healthy, Travis Konecny continues his upward trajectory and Giroux remains on the wing, where his career was resurrected. The Flyers' power play, which has hung around 20 percent the past two seasons, could be better this season after adding James van Riemsdyk, and Giroux had 36 power-play points on last season's unit.
I know. Saying that you're expecting a breakout year for Eichel this season is, at this point, as bold a prediction as saying a Damien Chazelle film starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong might have some awards buzz. (And it does!) But after his best point-production season in his three in the NHL (0.96 points per game in 67 games), Eichel is expected to skate with Jeff Skinner, who is demonstrably the best offensive winger with whom he's shared a line. Skinner has higher even-strength goal and point totals than Evander Kane in the past three seasons, as well as a higher even-strength point-per-game average at 0.67. Skinner, in turn, hasn't played with a center with Eichel's offensive gifts. Yes, health is a concern, as Jack hasn't hit 70 games since his rookie season, but that's really the only concern in one of the more obvious fantasy picks of the season.
Often times, fantasy selections are situational. Logically, putting faith in a rookie who broke through with a 31-goal season to finish fourth for the Calder isn't optimal. Sophomore slumps happen with more frequency than meteoric rises in Year 2. But then you look at Connor's expected linemates -- Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler -- and a lot of that doubt is erased. Plus, Connor put together that stellar 57-point campaign with just 11 power-play points, so there's actually room for growth here.
There are fantasy benefits to the Senators becoming the hockey equivalent of something Pierre Dorion scraped off the bottom of his loafers. The post-Erik Karlsson Sens will be avoided in most fantasy drafts like a plague of locusts or the 2016 Arizona Coyotes. So Stone might drop like his namesake on many boards, which is one reason why this 26-year-old right wing is an attractive pick. The others: His numbers have remained consistent (hovering around 60 points) for three seasons; he creates his own offense through his defense; and he's headed into a critical season that will justify his current cap number ($7.35 million) in his next contract in summer 2019 or undermine his case. Matt Duchene is in the same boat, but I trust Stone more to thrive in a season that will be as awkward as Eugene Melnyk wearing an ill-fitting jersey in a team-produced infomercial.
Sergachev is going to be one to watch this season. He managed 40 points in 79 games as a rookie (24 of them at even strength), with the majority of his time spent with Anton Stralman or Dan Girardi. There's a good chance his partner this season will be Ryan McDonagh, which means there's a good chance Sergachev's going to have the chance to be even more creative offensively. Or he'll just keep doing that same spin move at the blue line until someone figures out how to stop it. In any event, Sergachev's success will continue to be the inverse of that of the team that traded him for a winger it was going to turn into a center but who is now a winger for another winger whom it's going to turn into a center. Montreal, we weep for thee.
His 0.48 points per game last season put him in the same territory as more celebrated offensive defensemen like Zach Werenski and Cam Fowler, as well as his (currently suspended) Golden Knights teammate Nate Schmidt. Theodore had nine power-play points in 61 games, so a full season manning the Vegas man advantage (where he led the team in ice time) could add up to an increase in overall production. At least that's my notion; as usual with Vegas, all bets are off, because who even knows what the Knights will do for an encore.
Krug is one of the NHL's best players in the abstract. Strip away such bothersome details like shot suppression and other defensive deficiencies, and you have an offensive defenseman who produces at elite levels given his even-strength ice time (1.12 points per 60 minutes, with 16:36 even-strength ice time per game). He matched his career high with 14 goals, and we'll wager that his shooting percentage is north of 7.0 percent again. His 24 points on the power play would also seem repeatable. Again, Krug might not be high on my draft board if my league were scoring backchecking, but that's why we play fantasy. Well, that and creating clever team names under the allotted character count.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
If Vasilevskiy isn't the first goalie taken in your fantasy draft, that might be grounds for revocation of your league's charter. He now has proof of concept as a starter and will again collect wins (44 last season) and shutouts (8 last season to lead the NHL) behind what remains the best regular-season team in the Eastern Conference. He was one middling month away from winning the Vezina last season and will be in the mix again this time around.
Mike Buckley, the Penguins' goaltending coach, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that Murray's struggles last season were a confluence of different factors, from the death of his father in January to the enormous pressure he felt after incredibly early success (which led to the Penguins choosing him over franchise stalwart Marc-Andre Fleury). So the opportunity is there for Murray to get back to his 2016-17 numbers (.923 goals-against average, 2.41 save percentage and 32 wins) on a team that has had a 100-point pace in eight of the past nine seasons.